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Changing Currents

by Lynda V. Mapes
Pacific Northwest Magazine, March 5, 2006

SO HERE WE GO again: lawyers, courtrooms, rivers of money.

For the fourth time, the region is taking a stab at coming up with a long-term salmon-recovery plan for the Columbia River Basin. Cue the fog.

We dread another regional wreck -- we have come to expect it -- and tune out the gaseous spew of dueling statistics and economics we sense dragging us to the usual dŽnouement: Yet another court order, another year, and another salmon migration gone by. Who's even listening anymore?

U.S. District Judge James Redden, for one. And while he can't single-handedly knock down dams -- that takes an act of Congress -- he is shaking things up on the river.

Redden has already ordered changes in dam operations to keep fish on life support until the region figures out a salmon plan that doesn't break the law. The Endangered Species Act demands the dams be run without wiping out wild salmon.

We do it, or he'll do it, Redden warned last October. Not that running a river by court order would be a pretty sight: "Such a dysfunction of government is not a rational option," Redden wrote in his opinion, a kind of primal scream, as these things go. "There must be cooperation between the parties and all of the three branches of government to avoid such an embarrassment."

Tough talk! Surely this time the effort will go . . . somewhere, right?

But then there was that other federal judge, also demanding action. That would be Judge Malcolm Marsh: "The situation literally cries out for a major overhaul," he wrote in an opinion chucking the feds' first try at a recovery plan. That was in 1994. After two more stabs at it, in 2000 and in 2003, we still don't have it right.

So, here we are, going for round four in one of the region's longest-running domestic disputes.

How's it going so far?

Consider this dispatch filed in January by the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, an environmental group.

"With less than 10 months left until the new Salmon Plan is due to be completed, there is little evidence of real progress on the most important issues facing salmon. Even though the government has failed to produce a viable Salmon Plan three times in the last 10 years, the discussions about the new plan have been taking place with little outside input or transparency. Also, the process lacks any independent scientific review, leaving the Northwest and salmon-dependent communities wary of the government's ability to craft a viable salmon plan this time around."

This is getting hard to watch. Can we not get this right? How difficult can it be?

In every other field, we understand setting priorities and making choices. We get it that life isn't fair, someone has to lose. And, we do what we can, if we can, to make sure the guy taking the fall survives it. The old horse to ride away on. Any seasoned Olympia legislator knows this bromide for the political tummy.

Yet somehow on this one, we like to think -- and promise -- we can have it all. Cheap power, beaucoup fish, tugboats tooting all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, 465 miles from the sea. Everyone wins. It's some kind of environmental immaculate conception.

Unless you ask the out-of-work fishermen from Oregon to Idaho. Or the Indian people. How to count their losses, with 14 of 20 populations of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead at risk of extinction, including all four populations in the Lower Snake River.

So how to solve this? Studies?

The last big look-see at the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cost about $20 million and didn't move the region off the dime.

More biologists and economists have written more studies on Columbia and Snake River salmon than anyone could bear to read. The linear feet of shelving to hold them all would, well, dam a river. Into all this comes Judge Redden, welcome to some as a cop at a kegger.

Irrigators, navigators. Dry-land farmers, fishing folks, Indian tribes, state agencies, the feds: Everybody in the ring, the judge has ordered, and figure this thing out.

At this point, the discussion always settles on the same bull's-eye: The four Lower Snake River dams.

The last to be built in the federal Columbia and Snake River hydropower system, these dams are an easy target. Junior partners to the big bruisers on the Columbia, these four dams produce less juice -- just 5 percent of the region's power -- irrigate only about 13 large farm operations, and see a fraction of the cargo shipped on the Columbia.

So when the going gets tough, it's "take out the dams" time again, and Redden was quick to crack open the region's old chestnut.

"Be aware of the possibility of breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River if all else fails," Redden thundered.

He said it: The dreaded B word.

Breach. Now there is a word that suits our circumstances, in all of its iterations: The American Heritage dictionary tells us breach is 1) An opening or tear or rupture, especially in a solid surface 2) A violation or infraction, as of a law or obligation and, 3) A disruption of friendly relations.

Pretty well covers it, in a region facing all three.

WHILE DEADLY familiar, this impasse is odd in a region that has already fought the timber wars and come out the other side, reflects Todd True, senior staff attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice and a veteran of the ancient-forest fight.

"It's not like we have never been here before, in other areas, and made changes that looked larger than people thought we could make, in order to protect something unique and special to our region," True says.

"It took a pretty simple formula: Paying attention to the science, following the law, and addressing the economic pain."

Yet the fish problem has driven two federal judges so far to public spankings, scolding the federal agencies for stonewalling and dithering.

Redden even tied this latest go-round at coming up with a recovery plan to quarterly check-in conferences with the suits representing all sides to ensure they are actually, imagine this, talking.

It's environmental policy by juvenile master. But hey, whatever works. A bit embarrassing, though, for people who like to call themselves adults.

We whine and whine: Make the scientists tell us what to do. Make the economists do it. But as with anything else complicated -- health-care priorities, transportation policy, education reform, you name it -- the experts don't agree. Yet we are shocked, shocked. And send them back to do more studies, trying to outsource that which can't be bought: Leadership.

Money? You think that will fix it? We have spent more than $5 billion trying to save the fish so far. It's the largest, most expensive species-recovery program anywhere in the world. The current administration wants to spend $6 billion more, in part to avoid taking out the Lower Snake River dams. Even the Alaskan Way Viaduct is cheap by comparison.

The Bonneville Power Administration will spend about $600 million on its 500 some odd recovery programs this year alone. That's six times what the state has spent since 1993 on the new standardized test for kids -- tests that will determine the fitness of every public-school kid in Washington for graduation.

The region spends more than enough on Columbia Basin recovery programs to build a new Mariners stadium every year.

Add dueling science and economics to the mix, and you get a region that is so thoroughly stuck, so wrapped in rhetoric and inflexible in its quest for a fish, that Captain Ahab is a model of moderation by comparison.

There are actually choices here. We don't all have to go down with the ship, wrapped in our own harpoon lines. But it will take breaking a regional death grip mighty as Moby's.

PERHAPS IT WOULD be useful to remember how all this Snake River drama got started.

Some boulders along the Snake still bear the marks of iron rings used to haul sternwheelers up against the chewing current when the river ran wild. It could take more than three days to get upriver to Lewiston from the Dalles, and only 18 hours to get back.

Farmers blessed with some of the richest soil in the nation got their wheat to Portland and the world on the Wheat Fleet, steamers that plied the wild Columbia and Snake rivers all the way to the Palouse country in Washington's far southeast corner.

Near David Ruark's farm outside Pomeroy in Garfield County, you can still see the rails, rusting into the plateau some 1,800 feet above the Snake, where 150-pound sacks of wheat were zipped down to the river on the gravity-powered Mayview Tramway. It was used for some 51 years, into the 1940s, to move an estimated 15 million bushels of wheat.

Next came the railroads, and trucks. But always, there was the gleam in the eye for slackwater. First on the Columbia. Then on the Snake. Slackwater -- rivers tamed by dams -- would be the amniotic fluid to nurture an economic boom.

Historian Keith Petersen recounts one booster's vision: "The Inland Empire will be an empire in fact as well as in name -- an empire of industry, of commerce, or manufacture, and agriculture, and the valleys of the Columbia and the Snake will have become one vast garden, full of happy homes and contented and industrious people." Such dreams!

To be sure, the Columbia River dams industrialized the Northwest. But the economic boom proved a dud in dryland wheat country traversed by the Snake, and even in Lewiston. Only about 5,000 more people live there today than before slackwater came, and the port is struggling.

Places like Garfield County are in decline by any measure: it ranks 38th out of 39 counties in employment growth in the past 30 years, dead last in personal-income and population growth.

The last best times around here were when the dams were built.

Part of the reason is that, instead of giving the inland empire what Lewis and Clark had been dreaming about, a water connection to the Midwest, the Lower Snake River dams dead end at a relatively isolated port, with no major rail connections to the heartland, and a highway locally known as Idaho's Goat Trail.

Navigation on the Lower Snake never proved a boomer. Shipping volumes through the locks of the four Lower Snake River dams peaked in 1988 and have slid more than a third ever since.

Don't blame it on the salmon. It's about farmers getting whupped in a world market, where our former customers turned ferocious competitors. That means less wheat going downriver to the Port of Portland.

It's about lower-cost rail service, with rates competitive with river shipment. And it's about fewer ocean-going ships calling at the Port of Portland. That has forced even some of the waterway's biggest boosters off the river route to Portland and back onto the highways, trucking their products up to Puget Sound to catch a boat to Asia.

The Port of Portland is dredging in hopes of attracting the bigger ships. On the other end, the folks at the Port of Lewiston are quietly looking into upgrading their road and rail links to markets.

But bring up breaching here and people act as if something impolite has been said. Slackwater devotees who gathered for a convention in Lewiston last summer dismissed even a discussion of an alternative economy that replaces the benefits of the dams by other means and adds a recreation economy centered on a restored Snake River without those four dams.

"The magic fish economy," Lewiston Port Commissioner Pete Wilson said with a wave of his hand.

This, after an evening on a free-flowing reach of the Snake above Lewiston, jet boating the current, and a riverside dinner of roast beef and salmon -- farmed salmon, mind you.

It was a stupendous outing: Sunlight and bighorn sheep gamboling the sueded hills of the river canyon. Indian petroglyphs on the rocks. National Geographic moments, left and right.

And that was only the beginning: Just past the dams, the Snake River connects to the Salmon, a vast salmon bedroom largely within federally protected wilderness areas. Folks in Riggins, Idaho, on the Salmon, say they made $10 million off a single chinook season in 2001.

So what kind of draw would 140 miles of the Lower Snake be, if you let the river run? A river once home to 60 named rapids? With salmon and steelhead to catch?

We're not likely to know anytime soon, in a region where the head of the district office of the Corps of Engineers shows up to address the slackwater conferees wearing battle fatigues.

The outfit is standard -- hey, these guys are in the Army! The point is that camo seemed fitting, in this inland region locked in a defensive mode over the dams for a generation. Save Our Dams bumper stickers remain in plentiful supply over here. Slackwater didn't deliver all that was promised, but the status quo is still sacred.

THE BIG DEAL when the Lower Snake River dams were approved by Congress wasn't navigation. It was power. And that's still the dams' biggest economic contribution to the region.

In a world of drilling, mining and burning, it's hard to beat an energy source that starts with snowflakes. Hydropower has no fuel cost, no emissions (unless you count dead salmon) and is the cheapest source of energy in the region.

It is also an elegantly flexible system. The Columbia and Lower Snake today aren't rivers so much as big, stilled, battery packs, on remote control at all hours, ready to respond on demand, intricately linked together in one humming transmission grid.

And the dams are cash cows. Not only through the avoided cost of generating power with no fuel cost. We also get to sell surplus power at rates set by the rising cost of oil and natural gas. Cha-ching!

Steve Wright, who runs things over at the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the rivers' kilowatts, warns that power from the Lower Snake dams is worth about twice as much today as it was the last time we looked at taking them out.

But even with the spectacular sums spent on Columbia Basin salmon recovery, paid for by Bonneville ratepayers (that's you and me and all the rest of us who heat our homes, cook our burgers and power our hairdryers with electricity) Washington still enjoys some of the cheapest power in the 50 states -- 49th in average retail price for residential users.

The region is also using less power, and has more sources to produce it, than the last time the take-out-the-dams battle cry was heard.

The aluminum industry, a victim of rising costs of raw materials and foreign competition, has largely unplugged. That has dimmed power demand to levels not seen since 1989.

Wind farms now crank out enough electricity to run most of Portland, and gas-fired turbines stud the power grid. Take out the four Lower Snake River dams tomorrow, and it would barely draw down the region's power surplus. In time, we'd need to replace their power, and any fuel will be more expensive than falling water.

All of which is why lawyers may make even more money than hydropower does. At one count, nearly 30 attorneys from around the country were haggling before Redden's court, and that's just the ones with the fancy shoes and names on the letterhead. Who knows how many others toil in the trenches?

IMAGINE, IF YOU will, what all this looks like to a guy like Dave Ruark, working his farm outside Pomeroy. Take in the view: A vast sweep of Palouse, much of it in his family's name for more than 100 years. Meet his son, Paul, who used to fall asleep on the floorboards of the combine as his dad cut wheat into the night -- work Paul does now, as he takes over the farm.

Dave Ruark is used to risk: Markets. Weather. Bugs. But talk to him about taking out the Lower Snake dams and he gives a sad shake of his head. Farmers near the river, like him, enjoy some of the cheapest shipping in the country. It hasn't made him rich, but it's kept the farm from ruin, so far.

Picture again now the courtroom full of lawyers. The environmentalists with a new plan for the Lower Snake River: Take out the dams, extend the irrigators' pipes to those 13 farms, rebuild those rail and road links that Ruark's ancestors used, and watch a river recreation economy bloom.

Tell him and his neighbors the road and rail links will be put in, that the rail cars will be there when the wheat is ready, that the promised recreation economy will happen -- when a slackwater boom never did.

Tell him the same people who could agree to make all this go are the same ones who, so far, can't even talk to each other without a court order.

Ruark, a man of few but well-chosen words, has this to say, and really, given the performance so far, who can blame him:

"How do you spell baloney?" he says with a little smile, obviously pleased with his punch line. "That's B-U-L-L-oney."

So, no easy answer has popped up in oh, about 10 years in a region with both hands over its ears, still trying to have it all.

So here's an idea: Something here has got to give.

And Earth to region: It already has. Ask the fishermen or the Indian people about that -- if you dare.

It's not as though trade-offs are new to this picture. But actual, sincere negotiations toward a lasting, regional solution -- now, that would be new.

So Daves of the world, meet the Todds. All you Steves, meet the Peters. Let's face it, you guys need to talk. And it would be even better if you didn't need adult supervision.

A beautiful collection of photos accompany the article on the Pacific Northwest Magazine website.

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff writer.
Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.
Changing Currents
Pacific Northwest Magazine, March 5, 2006

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